Clio Barnard: The Arbor
Although Clio Barnard’s new film The Arbor chronicles the rough-and-tumble life of celebrated British playwright Andrea Dunbar (Rita, Sue and Bob Too), an alcoholic who died from a brain hemorrhage at age 29, it is anything but conventional in its aims and methodology. Shot in and around Brafferton Arbor, a street on the Buttershaw Estate in Bradford, Yorkshire, where Dunbar lived and worked while raising her three children, The Arbor reconstructs the late writer’s gritty milieu through the testimony of her eldest daughter Lorraine and other family members, whose words are lip-synched by professional actors in evocative set-designed environments. Barnard, an installation artist and filmmaker who used the technique previously for a 1998 short film called Random Acts of Intimacy, also cuts in scenes from Dunbar’s heavily autobiographical play The Arbor, performed outdoors by a mix of actors and estate residents, as well as bits of archive.
Though embraced by the establishment (she was the subject of a 1980 BBC documentary while still in her teens) and hailed as a working-class genius by Max Stafford-Clark, artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theatre (where her plays were produced), Dunbar’s life was troubled by addiction and abusive men, circumstances revisited in Robin Soans’ 2000 play A State Affair. In her new film, which incorporates a monologue from Soans’ work, Barnard allows Lorraine, a former heroin addict now in prison for manslaughter, to unwind her own painful story of neglect and racism (she is half Pakistani), playing her reflections and memories off those of Andrea’s other daughter Lisa, who had a different father and a less tortured existence after her mother’s sudden death. Such intimate reflections, unerringly lip-synched by Barnard’s dedicated performers, add yet another emotional valence to the Dunbar family saga, while her unusually compelling formal technique heightens the tension between truth and fiction, artifice and realism, that her subjects’ conflicting recollections only partially evoke. The Arbor, which debuted at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, takes the concept of verbatim theater into the realm of cinema, drawing our attention to the constructed nature of dramatized reality on-screen. It’s remarkably effective storytelling, and equally impressive as a hybrid film pointing the way forward for documentary.
Filmmaker sat down with Barnard to talk about truth and artifice, the logistics of reenactment, and the power of memory.
Filmmaker: It’s fascinating to think about all the layers you’ve worked into The Arbor, and how logistically complicated that structure is. How did you arrive at this approach for telling Andrea Dunbar’s story?
Barnard: I knew Andrea Dunbar’s work through Alan Clarke’s film adaptation of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. I’m not really a theater person, so I didn’t know her plays. But I was in a bookshop and I saw a copy of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, and it had been reprinted with Robin Soans’ A State Affair. Also, I had made a film in 1998 that had used the lip-synch technique, and I was really interested in the idea of documentary theater, that if you apply that technique to film it makes you aware of the illusion and the artificiality. I liked this idea, which was [longtime Royal Court Theatre director] Max Stafford-Clark’s really, of revisiting Brafferton Arbor a decade after Andrea’s death to see what had changed there. I wanted to go back a third time but reflect on previous representations of the estate. I was interested in the idea of the authentic — this aspiration to close the gap between reality and representation, [which is] an impossible aspiration. I didn’t set out to make a film about Andrea Dunbar, but that’s what emerged through talking to [her daughter] Lorraine.
Filmmaker: Did these ideas about authenticity and illusion also figure into your previous installation work?
Barnard: Yes, I’d made a gallery piece called Road Race, which was about how constructed documentaries are, that was run on a loop. Documentaries have a similar narrative structure to fiction films. I wanted to point that out, though in many ways it’s obvious [laughs] — I guess I wanted you to follow this particular story but simultaneously think about the fact that it’s the retelling of a true story. That seems important to me.
Filmmaker: What do you think is the importance to the audience of being aware of this illusion as they’re watching the film?
Barnard: I think whenever we watch a film we’re being manipulated, and we’re encouraged to forget that. I want to remind people that we’re being manipulated, especially when it’s a true story—and a difficult one.
Filmmaker: Watching the actress Manjinder Virk lip-synch her part, I was imagining what the real Lorraine looks like and the context in which that interview was conducted. At the same time, I was paying attention to the very nuanced way in which this actor was literally embodying another person’s voice. How did you handle directing the actors?
Barnard: It was a very long process for them. [Laughs] I didn’t do much in terms of directing them. They took the recordings away, and really went into it. Majinda played it on her iPod and learned it absolutely accurately. Technically, it was very challenging for them. What she and the other actors said was what they couldn’t think ahead. They had to be very present as they delivered [lines], trying to figure out what was going on in the person’s mind to make them arrive at the words they speak, because otherwise they’d get lost. I think that’s how they interpreted [the tapes] and gave the performances they gave. The process was to edit the audio interviews into roughly the shape [The Arbor] ended up being. In between, I storyboarded the film. The bit where all the family members are watching Lorraine speak the words at the end of A State Affair, for instance — it so happens that all of those interviews were conducted in different places. So to put [all the actors] in the auditorium and then have a tracking shot where you see each person respond is a complete construction. That was quite carefully choreographed.
Filmmaker: Apart from the audio interviews and the reenactments of those conversations in staged environments, there are also scenes from the play itself acted outdoors at Brafferton Arbor, as well as archive material. When did those elements come into play?
Barnard: The Arbor was commissioned by Artangel and at that point it was really no more than four pages of revisiting and reflecting on these previous representations. After I was told this project was greenlighted, I went to an archive and they had a recording—audio only, for some reason—of the documentary about Andrea when she’s 18, which you see part of in the film: She makes this understated expression of love for Lorraine, where she says “she’s a good baby.” I knew Andrea had died at age 29, and that Lorraine was [currently] awaiting a hearing for manslaughter, so I found it incredibly moving to hear Andrea’s voice saying these words—I suspected this might be the end of the film. Of course, I couldn’t know that because I hadn’t yet spoken to Lorraine. At that point, though, using archive became part of my thinking. And the decision to use extracts from Andrea’s play The Arbor really came after speaking to her sister Pamela about how autobiographical the play was and after spending time on Brafferton Arbor and getting to know people on the street where Andrea grew up. The original proposal was to create a verbatim text and then perform it on the Buttershore Estate and in the House of Lords. A State Affair had been performed there, but that seemed too complicated at a certain point. It seemed like the right thing to do because of this connection bewteen the past and the present, and for us to understand how difficult it must have been for Lorraine, and how entrenched the racism was, I suppose, in the eighties.
Filmmaker: What was the reaction of the community to the play’s performance?
Barnard: Well, I’d spent a lot of time on the Arbor and had gotten to know people very well. They were welcoming and open and excited in a way about us being there. It was a brilliant chaos. [Laughs] A journalist came up during the shoot and said it was like a carnival atmosphere. And it was. There were kids sitting on the sofas and riding their bikes through the doors, and people on horseback coming through the set.
Filmmaker: Were you at all surprised at how receptive the Dunbar family was to this concept, or their willingness to open up to you about family matters?
Barnard: I was, yes. There’s a big responsibility that comes with that so it was important to me that I lived up to that, in a way, and didn’t betray their trust. Someone told me they think this film is about my individual responsibility as a filmmaker, but also collective responsibility. It raises the question of why you would make private grief public. Andrea made her whole life public, and I think the reason I wanted to explore that as well is because we’ve all got responsibility for [Lorraine’s son] Harris’ death. The idea of neglect is also connected to the neglect of that community. The family’s ability to talk about their own experience allows us to look across 30 years of a neglected community and to think about our responsibility in relation to that.
Filmmaker: Certain moments in the film are built from tension that arises in the way you’ve edited the audio clips together. We know, for instance, that something has happened to Harris at a certain pont, but we don’t know what—or the circumstances under which it occurred. How did that process work?
Barnard: There were two editing stages, one for the audio and then one after the shoot. I worked with Daniel Godard on the audio, and another editor, Nick Fenton, at the other end of the process. You know, editing and writing are so closely connected. It was like writing a screenplay and then editing a documentary, I suppose. And actually, for the audio, the circumstances of Harris’ death—the news footage—was right at the beginning. We changed the structure during the video edit so that it became chronological and we had to take a lot out. We anticipated that we would make it as tight as we could but leave a little bit of room.
Filmmaker: The other element here is the production design that you created for the environments in which the renactments are shot. What were your touchstones for each of those scenes?
Barnard: In terms of the production design, those were the environments where I had interviewed people, and what you would understand about somebody from those environments. For example, when I went to Lisa’s house, she made me a Sunday roast. It was very domestic—she has a daughter and was pregnant at the time. When we were talking, we were sitting in the front room. Had it been a conventional talking-head interview, you wouldn’t have seen much of her environment and then you’d probably have done cut-aways. What I wanted you to understand from the way we constructed that environment was the idea of her having made me this Sunday dinner and her functioning domestic life, which seems important and relevant. Another example is Jim, who you see stroking a cat. What he was actually doing was picking this little kitten up by the scruff of its neck and dropping it on the ground, because he didn’t want to mess up our sound recording. But it kept jumping back into his lap! [Laughs] Other people told me he was really into cars, so that was why we had him under the bonnet of a car, taking the grease off his hands.
Filmmaker: And how about the sound design?
Barnard: Tim Barker is a sound recordist I’ve worked with for years, and he was really the first person in terms of crew that I spoke to before I’d done any of the interviews. He advised me technically on how to do the recordings. So we were talking about the sound right from the beginning. A lot of sound was recorded on location, but there was a lot of sound design afterward to create atmosphere.
Filmmaker: Though he is far afield in many respects, I thought frequently about Terence Davies as I was watching The Arbor, because of the emphasis here on memory.
Barnard: The relationship between memory and imagination has always interested me, and in a way the film opens with a scene where Lorraine and Lisa remember a fire. It’s the same moment, but they remember it completely differently. It works dramatically that that’s the first scene, but also it’s important that we remember that Lorraine is an unreliable narrator and that Lisa has a completely different view and experience of Andrea. Who knows what did or didn’t happen—that’s not the important thing. What’s important is what happens in her memory and what that meant for her. Memory and imagination are the same part of the brain.
Filmmaker: How has the long process of creating the film changed or deepened your understanding of class in Britain and the experience of daily life in these communities?
Barnard: It was a steep learning curve for me. I think I understand that it’s a really taboo subject in the U.K. [Laughs] People get upset about it, and feel upset that I’m middle class. I understand it in a sense because that’s typically what we see—middle-class people representing working-class people. And also I realize just how difficult it must have been for Andrea to find the time to write, being a single mother, and the pressure on her, presenting her world and her life to a middle-class audience in the theater. Part of what was really extraordinary about Andrea was that she didn’t move away, she stayed there and carried on writing about that life and that world. She had no intention of leaving.